Part I. The Acts of the Apostles

At Jerusalem

This portion of the book describes the events in the life of the church in its very earliest days. Each of the first sections ends with a summary of the state of the church at that moment, and the concluding section is an overview of this entire portion of Acts.

Chapter 1. Jesus leaves and the disciples carry on

The book opens where Luke's gospel ends, continuing with the story of the ascension. The disciples (about 120, both men and women) continue to meet to pray together. At Peter's suggestion, the number of the Twelve is filled once again, signifying their desire to continue and their faith that there is more yet to come.

Chapter 2. Pentecost and the earliest church

A few days later, with the whole group gathered together, the Holy Spirit came over them. The events of Pentecost had both private and public manifestations. These were followed by Peter's public explanation of God's actions through Jesus and the Spirit. Many people believed, on that day and those which followed, and the church grew by about 3,000 people. Despite these numbers, communal life was the norm.

On the original Pentecost the law was given from Mount Sinai. There was fire then also, but the people were separated from God by smoke, fear, and distance. At the new Pentecost, power is given and the fire links people to God and to each other.

Chapter 3. Peter and John take the lead

The earliest ministry seems to be led by Peter and John. Here we learn how Peter and John we able to heal a lame man at the temple gate as Jesus' representatives. This healing provided an opening for Peter to preach the good news about Jesus.

Chapter 4. Opposition by the religious leaders

The healing and subsequent preaching annoyed the religious leaders and resulted in the arrest of Peter and John. The religious leaders saw no way to deny the facts but sought to silence the apostles. There are 3 aspects to this opposition suggested by the text:

  1. The Sadducees were offended by the claim of resurrection.
  2. The number of believers was now up to 5,000, and presumably could be seen as a threat.
  3. The boldness of "ordinary" lay men has always been unnerving to educated elites.

The believers, however, seem to have been exhilirated by their mandate to speak and act in God's name. Their communal life appears to have been strengthened as well.

Chapter 5. The common life of the church

This chapter recapitulates the story, continues it, and adds new insight to the facts in the previous chapters.

  1. The communal life of the church was enforced in addition to being a spontaneous expression of faith. On the one hand, it is important to recognize that the sin being punished was lying to God (not the failure to join in the communinal life). On the other hand, it is fascinating to see that the early church began with a fear (φοβοσ) very like the fear present at the Exodus and first Pentecost.
  2. There was a public aura about the group, which was supported by a reputation for healings. People in general were impressed by the believers, but may perhaps not have been entirely comfortable with them.
  3. The conflict between the believers and the Jewish religious leaders was deep and persistent, but so was the conflict among the religious leaders. The apostles were imprisoned by the High Priest's faction, released by the intervention of an angel (whether a natural or supernatural messanger is not clear), rearrested and questioned, defended by another faction, then whipped and released in what must be a political compromise.
  4. The Spirit was very close to the believers, especially Peter and John. This is implied in Peter's knowledge about Ananias and in the deaths and the healings. It is explicitly shown in the release from prison and the instruction to return to the temple.
  5. Gamaliel, known then and since as a great teacher, represents the faithful and reasonable Jews. His position, based in scripture, recent experience, and a rationally understood faith in God's power, might well have appealed to a large number of Jews.

Moving Outward

In this section, the early church is driven to expand its horizons. God used persecution, visions, and direct instruction to move the believers beyond their Jewish roots to be a movement which offered good news to all nations.

Chapters 6-7. The roots of persecution

The story about the dispute between the ethnic groups serves several purposes. First, the story reminds us that 5,000 believers had their divisions and disagreements, even in the earliest days of the church. Second, it foreshadows other disputes later in Acts. Third, the story lets us know that the apostles viewed their own mission as preaching the word. Fourth, it introduces Stephen.

The rest of chapter 6 describes the circumstances of Stephen's arrest and arraignment. The prominence of this story indicates that Luke thought it was pivotal to understanding early Christian history.

Chapter 7 is given over to Stephen's defense and death. The report of the speech is unusually long and detailed, which again suggests its importance in Luke's history. Stephen bases his defense directly on the Hebrew scripture, which is necessary since the accusation is that he advocates destroying what was handed down. In Stephen's use, the story of Moses becomes an accusation against the council (that is, the members of the trial court) and he therefore prejudices his own case.

Stephen's conviction is already a foregone conclusion. He seals his fate by a rhetorical flourish and allusion to the vision of Daniel [7:13-14]. Luke tells us that Stephen saw his own vision of heaven, but the Jewish leaders could have disregarded that claim and still been enraged by the rhetoric. Stephen's statement amounts to a claim that Jesus is not only God's annointed but God's equal. This could be interpretted as a polytheistic claim (a theological distinction which continues to this day to be a problem in Christian relations with other religions). If it is not polytheistic, then there is identity between Jesus and God, which might be even worse heresy within the established understanding of scripture.

Luke takes the opportunity to introduce Saul (Paul) as a young man who was in some way attached to the council.

Chapters 8-9: The first persecution and its benefits

The first 4 verses are primarily about Saul. Saul was not just there at Stephen's death; he approved. Persecution led to a limited diaspora; Saul was the one who led the battle against the church. As with most persecutions, there was some dissent. Here, that is evidenced by the devout men who buried Stephen's body. (Some would place 8:1 with chapter 7, but that begs the question of 8:3. They all belong together.)

The rest of these chapters describe the effects of the persecution which Saul (Paul) helped to instigate. Clearly these effects are not those Saul intended. (This foreshadows some of Paul's later observations about his own troubles and imprisonment.) One can interpret the benefits of persecution as fulfilling Gamaliel's warning in chapter 5.

8. The first Christian diaspora

The believers were scattered but not silenced. Philip went to Samaria and made a great impression. Even Simon the magician, who lost his audience to Philip's acts of power, was converted. Peter and John were apparently still the leading voices of the young church, and came to support Philip's mission. (There may have been some surprise that Samaritans, despite some common ancestry and shared beliefs, would have joined the Jewish believers. If so, Peter and John may also have been checking up on Philip's reported success.) Their visit resulted in the coming of the Spirit on the Samaritans, just as the Spirit came to the Jews, and Peter and John preached in Samaritan towns on their way home.

There is nothing to indicate that Simon the magician was not truly converted to the faith. However, he still understood what he saw in terms of his own past life and coveted the power for himself. Even spiritual gifts can be the occasion for sin.

Philip was next directed to the Ethiopian official. This Ethiopian was presumably Jewish, since he had been to the temple for worship. Nevertheless, the story shows the church reaching farther from its Jerusalem roots.

9. The conversion of Saul

In the meantime, Saul is also going farther away, expanding the persecution to neighboring provinces. In particular, he sets off for Syria. Jesus has other plans for Saul. That Saul had vision of the Lord is impressive. That Ananias held conversation with the Lord at the same level as Abraham [Genesis 18] and Moses [Exodus 17] is also important to understanding the good news.

Saul returned to Jerusalem, claiming to be converted. Since that was incredible, it was not believed. The deacon Barnabas finally took on Saul's cause. Predictably, Saul became a victim of his own persecution and so the church sent him back to Tarsus, his home town.

This ended the era of the first persecution, allowing the church to grow in the many places where the believers had been scattered.

Chapters 10-11. Reaching the Gentiles

God began the next phase of Christian history by sending a vision to a Roman soldier. Cornelius believed in God but was not a Jew or even a Samaritan. He was a member of a foreign nation and an officer in the imperial army. Once Cornelius heard and acted on God's word, a second vision was sent to Simon Peter. When Cornelius' men arrived, God spoke again to Peter. So Peter went to Caesarea and preached Jesus Christ to the gentiles and baptized them.

It seems unlikely that either of them would have acted in this way, certainly not Peter, without specific instructions from the Spirit. Even after agreeing to enter a gentile house, Peter did not expect to welcome them into the church. But the Spirit acted ahead of the apostle and Peter, with typical enthusiasm, went along.

Peter's unexpected actions were certainly open to suspicion. The first part of chapter 11 is the record of how Peter explained himself to the Jewish believers. The believers in Jerusalem were much surprised, but they were convinced that God had opened the door to the nations.

Meanwhile, the faith was spreading to the Jews across the western provinces of the empire. At Antioch, the hand of the Lord led some believers to preach also to the "Greeks" (or Hellenists). The Jerusalem church supported this movement by sending Barnabas to Antioch for a year. The Antioch church sent support back to Judea in anticipation of famine. (This sets the pattern of mutual aid much evidenced in Paul's later letters.) The power of the Lord and of the Spirit are explicitly active in each of these episodes.

As the one who first supported Saul (Paul), Barnabus naturally sought Saul at Tarsus and invited him into active ministry. The offering for Jerusalem became the opportunity for Saul to return with Barnabus to Jerusalem.

Chapter 12. The persecution by Herod Agrippa I

Meanwhile, Herod Agrippa I resumes the persecution. We are not told why Herod killed James; we are told that he arrested Peter to curry favor. (Presumably, Herod delayed the trial for the same reason. A trial during Passover might have been unpopular, and certainly it wouldn't have the same publicity value.)

God released Peter from prison. (Just how is obscure. Readers often suppose a celestial being working miracles at each door and gate, but a human acting as God's angel would fit the story well. Compare the other escape from prison in chapter 5.) God's direct intervention is an essential point of this story. So is the confusion of Peter, Rhoda, and the congregation, not one of whom immediately grasped what was happening.

There was also confusion among the guards, but the contrast is between Herod's killing and God's freedom. Similarly, Herod's own death contrasts with the growth of the church.

The return of Barnabus and Saul to Antioch signals the close of this part of the book.

The Missions from Antioch

This section describes the missionary efforts sponsored by the church in Antioch. These were a significant outreach, although not as ambitious as Paul's later journeys. The missions raised a number of issues regarding non-Jewish converts, which were resolved by a council in Jerusalem.

Chapters 13-14. Barnabas and Saul are sent

The Spirit directed the church in Antioch to send out Barnabas and Saul as missionaries. The local church was well established and included a number of spiritual leaders, but it was the Spirit who gets credit for the mission.

They went first to Cyprus and preached to the Jews. The governor was sympathetic and curious, but political interest engenders political turmoil and their invitation from the governor incited Elymas (the Jew, bar-Jesus) to speak out in opposition. Paul (Saul) counter-attacked with the Spirit's power; this convinced the governor. On the other hand, the believers would now be known as powerful and, therefore, potentially dangerous. Paul (not Barnabas) is henceforth seen as the leader.

The group goes to another city called Antioch and Paul's speech is recorded in considerable detail. Like Peter and Stephen, Paul bases his explanation of the new faith on the history of the Jewish people. The missionaries attracted a crowd and, inevitably, jealousy. In response, Paul and Barnabas turn to the gentiles. This strategy wins many followers for the faith but invites persecution by the establishment (both civil and religious).

Next they move to Iconium and repeat the pattern of preaching to the Jews and then the gentiles. The people were deeply divided. The anger reached to the point of stoning, but the apostles fled to Lycaonia.

In Lycaonia, audacious local religious leaders attempted to appropriate the apostles' power. This technique might have succeeded, except that Barnabas and Paul resisted forcefully. The more conservative opposition was then imported.

Paul and Barnabus passed back through the many places they had visited, teaching that "we must pass through many troubles". They finally returned to Anitoch and made their report.

Chapter 15. Quarrels

The major quarrel of the church at this time was about the place of gentile believers. Although it had by now been established that non-Jewish people were being welcomed by God, it was not yet clear whether they needed to become Jews in order to be faithful to Jesus. The question was put a council in Jerusalem.

At this council, Peter and James took the lead. (Some suppose this actually represents 2 debates with 2 separate conclusions.) Peter argued that God had welcomed the gentiles on the same basis as the Jewish believers: by the grace of Jesus. It would not be right, then, for the church to add more requirements than what God set. James emphasized God's promise for all nations and proposed a specific declaration for adoption. The dispute was resolved rationally on the basis of God's example since the resurrection. (Note how both written and oral messages were sent and were intended to be mutually confirming.)

The second conflict occurred some time later when Paul proposed renewing their missionary work. The dispute arose over John Mark, who had joined them for part of the earlier journey [12:25-13:13]. This quarrel was not resolved by reason or by love or by the intervention of the Spirit. It is not clear why either Paul or Barnabus took such an inflexible position on the matter, but in any case they were unable to work together.

We lose track of Barnabus at this point, and, in fact, of all the other apostles, as the narrative focuses specifically on Paul's life.

Part II. Paul's Missionary Journeys

The First Loop

Paul's adventures with Christ have already been extensive. The church at Antioch and Paul himself have been in the lead as far as formal missionary work in the eastern Mediterranean. Now he undertakes the multi-year mission trip he proposed above.

Chapter 16. Timothy, Philippi

Paul meets Timothy and decides to take him along. But why does he circumcise Timothy? The explanation is not very complete, but presumably Paul is trying to avoid antagonizing the Jews unnecessarily. As for the Hellenes, they pesented the decision of the council in Jerusalem to the churches.

The Spirit directed the mission away from Asia and Bithynia (we are not told the Spirit's reason). Instead, Paul receives a vision guiding them to Macedonia and the city of Philippi. Luke's personal presence here explains for the more detailed account of this visit. Paul continues his policy of meeting the Jews first, although here there is apparently no synagogue and the Jews met at the riverside. Luke makes special mention of Lydia who provide hospitality to the group.

The fortune-telling slave girl annoys Paul. It is interesting that Paul drove out the spirit because he was upset rather than from altruism. Destroying the girl's ability to make money may not have done her any favor since it didn't free her from her masters. As for the missionaries, her words might have been considered good publicity, while eliminating the prophetic spirit created powerful enemies for them.

The result was arrest, embarassment, and whipping. There followed an earthquake which destroyed the prison. For Paul, this was an opportunity to convert the jailer. But Paul also stands up for his civil rights and forces the local officials to apologize.

Chapter 17. Thessalonika, Beroea, and Athens

Paul and Silas (but apparently not Luke) travel to Thessalonika, where again they go first to the synagogue. Some Jews believed and some roused a mob and raised the spector of disloyalty to Rome. Absent Paul and Silas, Jason and his friends were forced to post bond on the accusations. The believers sent Paul and Silas away to Beroea. We see that Roman law will be used as a tool by both sides in this religious battle.

At Beroea, the same pattern was followed, although at first with more success. Paul was sent away to Athens, but Silas and Timothy were able to stay longer.

In Athens, Paul began at the synagogue again, but he also used Greek customs and literature as tools for spreading the good news. This technique appears to have had good effect until he lost his audience with the claim of resurrection.

Chapter 18 (vv. 1-23). Corinth, Ephesus, and home

On, then, to Corinth. Silas and Timothy rejoin Paul here. Here they also meet the tentmakers Aquila and Priscilla, refugees from a new persecution against the Jews in Italy. (It is valuable to consider that persecutions against Jews predated those against Christians.) Again he met first with the Jews, was thrown out, and turned to the Hellenes.

Paul received another vision from God instructing him to continue his work in Corinth, which he did for 18 months. There was one attempt to use Roman authority against Paul (as in Thessalonika) but this governor refused to be drawn in.

Paul travelled with Aquila and Priscilla to Ephesus. There he followed the usual pattern, but briefly. Paul continued on to Jerusalem and back to Antioch.

The Second Loop

Paul continued mission work with short excursions from Antioch, but now he undertakes another multi-year mission trip.

18:24-28. Apollos

This story about Apollos occurs in parallel to Paul's work in Antioch and the nearby provinces, which is why it is placed in chapter 18. However, it is also forms the background to Paul's next missionary journey.

The essence of the story is that Apollos used his Jewish education and his talent for speaking to advance the Christian movement in Ephesus. He was deficient in some aspects of the Christianity; this was partially remedied by Aquila and Priscilla. The church at Ephesus backed Apollos' trip to Achaia [the province where Corinth is located] and he used his talents to support the church there.

Chapter 19: Ephesus

Paul now returns to Ephesus. Despite his earlier visit, the presence of Priscilla and Aquila, and the ministry of Apollos, some believers in Ephesus were not baptized as Christians. Paul baptized them and so did the Spirit. It is not clear if these people were connected with those mentioned earlier. It is clear that the church was still far from unified.

Paul then returns to his typical pattern, working with the Jews for another 3 months before splitting with them. He continued teaching in a private lecture hall and was also the conduit for numerous healings. Paul's successes caused others to try to appropriate Jesus' name for their own benefit, but the story of Sceva's sons indicates this didn't work well.

The mention of book burning is troubling today. Our modern concern is primarily the free exchange of ideas, and burning books has been a tool of suppression. The book burning mentioned might be better viewed as moving away from attempts to amass private power toward the more open attitude of the Christians. Books of magic would have been closely guarded secrets, in no way part of the philosophical or political conversation.

After these years, Paul was itching to move on again, even menioning his desire to travel to Rome eventually. Before he could set out, the silversmith riot broke out based on concerns over the potential loss of jobs. The Jews were indistinguishable from the Christian believers in this context, because both advocated monotheism.

Chapter 20: Macedonia and Greece

Paul ranges through Macedonia visiting the churches and spent 3 months in Greece (the province of Achaia). He was to sail back to Syria, presumably to Antioch, when plots against him caused a change in itinerary. Paul and a large group of others went by land instead, which took them back north through Macedonia.

From Philippi, Luke and unnamed others joined the group in Troas. An all-night gathering almost killed one young man, or perhaps he was killed and raised again. (I'm inclined to think "dead" was used loosely in describing his condition, if only because the story suggests very little attention was paid to Eutychus once Paul annouced he was alive. It didn't seem to be treated as a miracle so much as a great relief.)

The group continues on, mixing land and sea travel. They pause briefly to meet the leaders from Ephesus. During this meeting, there is much foreshadowing of the events in the last parts of Luke's account. Paul's warnings to the Ephesians sound much like Jesus' words during his last days, making them seem even more ominous.

The Journey to Rome

The last part of the story consists of Paul's arrest in Judea, his detention, and his journey to Rome.

Chapter 21: The trip to Jerusalem

We already know that Paul was planning to go not only to Jerusalem but also to Rome. The dramatic tension is heightened by the advice of the Christians in Tyre and by the prophecy of Agabus at Caesarea, but the main story is Paul's determination.

It is worth noting that Philip the deacon was still active in the church, although Luke's account has taken no notice of him for many chapters.

Under James' influence Paul makes a show of supporting the Jewish sacrificial tradition. James is concerned to counter a reputation which Paul now has for apostasy against the Jews. The plan backfires when Paul's antagonists see him in the temple and assume the worst interpretation.

So Paul is arrested. There is some irony that he was arrested for being beaten up, and not for anything he has done or anyhing he was accused of. The Romans were more concerned with preventing civil disturbances than with more esoteric points of justice. (The kiliarch's remark reminds us that terrorism was a legitimate current concern for the empire.) The Roman sense of good order applied to the authorities as well as the populace. So Paul was allowed to speak to the people – even in Hebrew, which the soldiers would likely not understand.

Chapter 22: Paul's apologia before the crowd

That Paul makes his defense in Hebrew is his first point: He is a Jew, educated in Jewish laws and traditions, known to the High Priest and the entire leadership. Paul continues with the story of his conversion. (See chapter 9.) He then asserts his claim to be an apostle to the nations.

This last claim set off the crowd for it plays into their prejudices about Paul. The kiliarch immediately intervenes again; Paul himself has now violated the civil order with his words. Paul buys some consideration by standing on his civil rights as a Roman citizen. The commander still needs to understand the anger if he is going to maintain order in Jerusalem, so he changes tactics and brings Paul to the Jewish council.

Chapter 23: Paul and the Sanhedrin

With the change of audience, Paul also switches tactics. Here he emphasizes his background as a Pharisee and incites a dispute between the parties in the council. The kiliarch Lysias (no better informed than before) returns Paul to protective custody – protective both of Paul's life and of the public quiet.

The sense of order among the Jewish priests was somewhat different from that of the soldiers. Although they, too, were opposed to public unrest, murder of a countryman and Roman citizen fell inside the range of acceptable means for the high priest. Claudius Lysias disagreed, and he sent Paul away to Felix, the current governor, in Caesarea.

This story is also noteworthy for the small window we have into Paul's family. He has a married sister and a grown nephew who is living in Jerusalem.

Chapter 24: Before Felix

This chapter describes the Roman legal proceedings. Luke's purpose in telling this story is to showcase Paul's position and contrast him with his opponents. For us, it is also interesting to learn about legal practices in the eastern empire.

  1. The Jews met the governor before the formal hearing.
  2. They used a lawyer in the Roman court.
  3. Paul served as his own attorney.
  4. The trial depended more on argument and less on evidence than our courts.
  5. The legal rhetoric included a strong component of flattery.
  6. The accused was kept under loose detention pending the verdict.

Felix is described as being well informed about Christianity. His wife is Jewish, and he shows an interest in knowing more. He is also portrayed as being uncomfortable with morality and open to bribery and to stretching the limits of detention. The record in Acts suggests that detention prior to judgement could extend for a maximum of 2 years. (See also 28:30.) In this case, Felix left the problem to his successor.

Chapter 25: Festus takes charge

The Jewish leaders hoped to get another chance at Paul. Festus ensures that this opportunity is only in court, but he hopes to make the local officials happy by allowing them to conduct the trial in Jerusalem. Paul counters this threat by invoking another right of citizens, the right of appeal to the emperor. It is clear by now that Paul is adept as a lawyer.

Before acting on Paul's appeal, Festus hosts the local royalty. Political maneuvering and posturing is rampant.

Chapter 26: Paul's apologia before Agrippa

Luke must have been present for this episode, based on the detailed account he presents. Paul repeats his personal story, recapitulating the information Luke has already presented to us. Of course, the presentation is tailored to the audience.

Agrippa's comment to Festus about releasing Paul is probably gratuitous; it's easy to talk of releasing someone when the matter has moved beyond your control. We know, of course, that Paul intended to go to Rome and he will now get there with a government escort. (This may not be at government expense, however; Paul made the appeal and his friends are travelling with him.)

Chapters 27-28: To Rome

Luke travelled with Paul and we are provided with nearly a day-by-day account of the journey. The key elements for Luke are not the ports but the sound advice Paul offered repeatedly. The storm is exciting and the seamanship sound, but it is God's purpose for Paul which determines the outcome. Not that we should discount the good will and sense of duty on the part of the army officer.

The forced overwintering in Malta was highlighted by the unhappy snake and the healing of Publius' father.

Notice that the loose custody is continued in Malta. Paul and his friends are free to interact with each other and with the local residents. Similarly, in Italy they stayed a week in Puteoli at the request of the local Christians. Finally arriving in Rome, Paul was allowed to establish his own lodging so long as the guard was with him. (The soldier was probably chained to him. This may have been the original ankle bracelet system. Instead of electronics, it used a Roman soldier.)

Paul was able to reach out to the Jews in Rome, following as closely as possible his usual pattern. Here, too, the Jews divided in their opinions and Paul announced that he was turning to the other nations.

Luke's narrative ends with 2 years of house arrest. It would be reasonable to suppose that Paul was released when the 2-year term of detention expired. Luke says nothing about the Romans in Rome, suggesting that they took no notice of the matter. (Perhaps no one came from Jerusalem to press the case, or the Roman officials may have been too taken up with the murderous intrigues of the imperial court.)

December 2003 - January 2004

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